2019 ALUMNI OF THE YEAR: Vern Dosch
When you ask Bismarck State College Alumni of the Year Vern Dosch about his life, he’ll tell you that he’s married to Lynne, has three children, five grandchildren, and that family and his home on the Missouri River bring him joy.
But for the most part, he’ll steer the conversation to his work, his employees, and the value of a cooperative model. Dosch is president and CEO of National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), an information technology cooperative that develops and supports software and hardware solutions for utility cooperatives and telecommunications companies across the nation.
NISC has more than 1,200 employees and 800+ member systems who serve approximately 20 million customers in 50 states, parts of Canada, American Samoa, and Palau. With offices in Mandan, Lake St. Louis, Mo., Shawano, Wis., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Blacksburg, Va., the success of this organization has a great deal to do with Dosch, although he is quick to credit NISC’s employees and members. Dosch authentically lives and breathes the values he espouses in his book, “Wired Differently”: Do the right thing, always. Serve others. Live your ethics out loud.
Dosch was born and raised in Bismarck. Other than a brief stint in Grand Forks, he’s lived here his whole life.
Dosch travels 70 percent of the time, and he’s certain that there’s no better place than Bismarck-Mandan. He says the carrot he dangles in front of his Silicon Valley peers is his commute. “Three miles in a kayak, then landing, getting on my bike and riding in.”
NISC’s biggest customers often convert from platforms like SAP or Oracle that were developed by those peers. “We’re a little software company competing and winning, and it’s because of our extraordinary talent. It’s overused to say it, but our success really is because of the people.”
“Our counterparts in Silicon Valley hire 250 employees when they need 200 employees because on any given day a quarter don’t show up. [Our] people come and work.”
Dosch says the NISC workforce average age is 34, and in the support center it’s 30. One of the cooperative’s biggest challenges is navigating the less traditional, millennial approach to the work week.
“In my world, 70 hours a week was red badge of courage. [Our younger employees] come and work with their heads down 40 hours a week. No water cooler talk or downtime. Then they go and play.”
He says managing people has changed over the years. “People used to manage by fear. [Management] had your career in their hands. Today it’s more collaborative. Employees want to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. They are innovative and contribute at a higher level because they’ve bought into the organization.”
Dosch found meaningful work early in his career. The oldest of five in a home where college was an expectation, he enrolled at Bismarck Junior College in 1971. Dosch lived at home, attended classes, and worked – earning his “bachelor of hamburgerology” at McDonald's. “My kids tease me about it, but I learned a lot about people and all aspects of the business there.”
At BSC he remembers early morning classes with Gerald VandeWalle – who currently serves as Chief Justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court. “He was a magnificent teacher. We’ve maintained a friendship since that class.”
He said Mike McCormack made history fascinating, and “Don Bigwood was extraordinary.”
Not long after he graduated from the University of Mary, a family friend at Capital Electric recruited him for an opening there. He was hired, and the cooperative model became Dosch’s professional road. He went on to Basin Electric for a few years before landing at North Central Data Cooperative (NCDC) in 1986. NCDC became NISC in 2000.
“Our customers are primarily rural electric and telephone cooperatives around the country. These organizations have the responsibility to move electricity, telecommunications, and broadband to rural America.”
Due to the cost of infrastructure and service, Dosch says “the only way to get essential services to rural customers is a low-cost model governed by people they serve.”
The cooperative model creates a higher purpose.
“So, our programmers are not just writing code or developing software – they are facilitating quality of life in rural America. They are bridging the technical divide in rural America."
"To have purpose beyond the bottom line...purposeful work matters, and it matters particularly to young people.”
While many young people work at NISC, the cooperative also has remarkable tenure, and retirements are opening even more opportunities. Dosch looks to the North Dakota University System, the University of Mary, and particularly BSC to fill those roles. “We see BSC as providing a very valuable link to success in this business and community. We can’t do it without BSC. A while back, we said ‘we need cybersecurity.’ We engaged with BSC, and we are seeing the first interns from that program. This is the technical talent we need.”
NISC donated $50,000 to the college’s Cybersecurity and Information Technology Program in 2018, helping to grow the program’s capacity and add a Bachelor of Applied Science degree.
“I’m so grateful [President Larry C.] Skogen listens to us, and we are seeing good things happen. [We’re] seeing young people gain skills that are marketable and translate into jobs at NISC. And this is because of that partnership and collaboration – Skogen opened the door.”
Dosch is committed to NISC, the people, and the daily challenges of growth, and particularly his North Dakota roots.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years. If had to do it over again – if I had to start Vern’s Software Company – I’d start it here, on a windswept hill on Old Red Trail in Mandan, North Dakota.”